Emmett Brennan is a young man looking for his way in the world. When we first meet him, he’s left his home in Houston, Texas, headed for Florida. That’s the literal truth, by the way: He’s in his car, fighting traffic, fielding frantic calls from his friend/foster parent who wants him to return home, but he’s having none of it.
For years, Emmett has felt dissatisfied, longing to go somewhere, anywhere, to start a real life. He’s never known his parents, never had a permanent home. Plagued by bizarre, recurring dreams, he’s always felt there’s something he’s been missing. J.E. Alexander’s The Waking Dreamer is about what happens when Emmett sets out to find his place in life.
As might be expected, Emmett’s road trip to Florida soon goes bad. (And come on, what kind of story would it be if that didn’t happen?) During a fracas with an unidentified entity at a gas station in the boondocks of Florida, he meets up with two strangers, a woman and a man, Amala Amjadi, a Druid, and Keiran Glendower, a Bard, both of whom are part of a group called the Children of the Earth. Luckily for Emmett, Amala and Keiran also appear to be the good guys.
Almost immediately, Emmett and his new friends find themselves on the run with barely time to rest or breathe. Keiran and Amala also both believe that Emmett is somehow special; in fact, Amala, as we know from an eerie opening chapter, was present at his birth. If she has any specific knowledge of his ultimate purpose, though, she isn’t sharing. Emmett, meanwhile, is suffering from a wound inflicted during the mysterious encounter in Florida, and his condition is steadily worsening. Will they make it?
Right away, we see Emmett Brennan as a snarky, impetuous, but ultimately goodhearted boy on the verge of becoming a man. We also find out that he loves movies, especially horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Not only does he love them, he lives them. Everything he experiences, he relates to characters and situations from his favorite movies. Movie references abound in this story, and though understanding them isn’t necessary, the careful film fan will no doubt recognize many of them.
Emmett and his protector Keiran are the characters we stay with throughout most of the story, and author J.E. Alexander utilizes their relationship well, exploiting it as a storytelling device without falling into the trap of making it overwhelming, unwieldy, or both. Make no mistake, there’s a lot of information to absorb here: With The Waking Dreamer, Alexander has given us a world full of Druids, Bards, Mara (dreamers), Old Ones, Elders, Revenants, Underdwellers, and other assorted creepies. The flow of information never feels rushed, though.
Emmett is a good, solid protagonist, and even though we may feel frustrated with him, we have no problem empathizing, fearing for him, and rooting for him to succeed. Keiran is a vividly-drawn character, serving as confident counterpoint to Emmett’s uncertainty. He’s mysterious enough to be compelling, but it’s clear he wants to protect Emmett and help him find his purpose. While the two characters are certainly somewhat alike, there are still stark differences: Emmett knows next to nothing about the world he’s been drawn into, while Keiran has lived in it for some time now. And when Emmett tries to hide his lack of confidence behind snark and movie references, Keiran never seems to judge him for it.
The Waking Dreamer is a unique and fresh approach to dark, contemporary fantasy, in which the author has constructed a fascinating mythology with a plausible, interesting history and tons of secrets, all set in a contemporary world. And though it may sound strange to say so, The Waking Dreamer is also a realistic story of growing up. Yes, it’s a dark fantasy tale filled with magic, mystery, horror, and intrigue–and it’s a good one of those, too–but it’s also about a kid venturing out into the world, learning to trust others when he doesn’t even trust himself, and deciding to move forward even when he’s not sure he can succeed.
As Amala says to Emmett, “There is nothing more powerful than when you recognize that you are inadequate for the journey before you.” What kind of hero sees himself as inadequate, you might ask? It’s one thing when a protagonist does the right thing because he’s strong and confident, but it’s entirely another when he does it despite the fact that he has no such self-assurance. Remember a little guy named Frodo Baggins? Well, he did okay.
Emmett Brennan’s not a hobbit, but for my part, I look forward to reading more about him.